Friday, May 21, 2010
Milk in the Raw - Miracle Cure and Tasty Treat or Bio-Hazard?
The raw milk controversy has been raging on the internet for a while now and the politicians are involved, so I'm sure there won't be a definitive answer for a while. Each state has its own regulations surrounding raw milk. Massachusetts allows people to buy raw milk only from the diary farm directly. Wisconsin just yesterday vetoed a bill that would permit similar farmer to consumer sales. In California, you can get raw milk in health food stores but it has to have a warning label. Alaska has banned raw milk for human consumption - unless you are getting it from your very own cow. You can see a list of state regulations here.
Why all the controversy? Certainly the locovore movement has had a lot to do with it, along with people wanting fewer preservatives, pesticides, etc. in their food. Small dairies are hoping for more leniency in order to improve their market share and promote their high quality products, while "big dairy" wants to keep the raw milk trend in check for more than medical reasons, and the government wants to keep people alive. Raw milk - milk that hasn't been through the pasturization process - is full of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and pro-biotics that are believed by many to help "cure" people with medical problems from asthma to acne. When milk is pasturized, or heated to 161 degrees F for at least 15 seconds, any bad microorganisims and bacteria present in the milk are killed, along with many of the healthy probiotics and enzymes. In large scale milk production, milk from many farms is dumped together into vats, and it is always possible that nasties like sallmonella or listeria can get into the milk when a worker forgets to wash his hands, or something dirty falls into the vat, and it would be passed along to consumers if it wasn't pasteurized. Salmonella has been in the press a lot lately thanks to spinach, etc., and pregnant women in particular need to be aware of listeria which has been known to cause stillbirth. All of the bacteria affiliated with raw milk cause severe intestinal distress, some can cause paralysis, and they can all be particularly dangerous to kids, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. It can be really bad. Luckily (and a main part of the raw milk argument), this isn't the case with small dairies where farmers name their cows, let them eat delicious, nutritious grass and flowers and a whole lot of love goes into each milking.
Many of the world's great cheeses are made with raw milk. Some say that cheese made with pasteurized milk lacks essential flavor, or oomph. If you taste a grocery store cheddar and compare it with a Isle of Mull cheddar, for example, you will probably agree. The grocery store stuff starts tasting a little bit like orange rubber. Yum. In fact, if you visit the Isle of Mull Cheese website, you will find the following quote: "We believe pasteurisation to be unnecessarily brutal way of treating milk to be used in making Isle of Mull Cheese. Far too many of those organisms, which have the potential to create individualism and maturity of flavour are indiscriminately sacrificed in the process."
All raw milk cheeses imported to the US are all over 60 days old, which gives the any listeria (not likely) present the opportunity to die. It is an anarobic bacteria, and thus can't survive beyond 45-ish days outside the milk pail. In addition, raw milk cheeses (both in the US and abroad) are almost always made by small producers who name and love their small dairy herds and keep scrupulously clean facilities and detailed records, so chances of bacteria in the milk are limited. Take, for example, the beautiful Avonlea Cheddar below - raw milk, aged and delicious. If you are still worried, cheese makers and dairy farmers have been making great strides in a lower heat, longer cooking time pasteurization technique that retains more flavor in much safer milk.
The argument is that if you want to buy and drink raw milk for its medicinal properties, and are smart enough to buy it from a reputable, clean-as-a-whistle dairy that produces on a small scale, you should be able to do what you want, so long as you don't sue if you knowingly choose raw milk and something bad happens. I'm not sure where I fall in this debate. Kind of like a Oiji board, I don't really believe the drama, but I don't know if I really want to mess with it either. I do know that I am not one to turn down a cheese regardless of it's pasteurized status. At the end, it's all about personal choice (and your state's desire to protect your gullet).
So there's your cheese politics for the day. I'd love to see (polite) thoughts and dialogue to follow!